By Bob Bernard
"I could tell that she was upset, but I didn't think that she was going to kill him."
That was the reaction of a provincial sweet young thing, during intermission of her ver first opera: Tosca.
We have long ago lost our own sense of surprise and wonderment when attending a performance of Tosca, but it still remains for us to admire and relish how well something is done, even knowing how all will be played out.
LA Opera's revival of Tosca next season (April 2017) evokes, as it always does, memories of Toscas from years past: of riveting stagings of the "Te Deum," of memorable renditions of the "Vissa d'arte," and of........... the Leap.
The libretto, of course, calls for Floria Tosca to hurl herself to her death from the top of the Castel Sant' Angelo, looking forward to going eyeball-to-eyeball with Scarpia in the presence of God Almighty in the world to come. We know that first impressions are lasting, but so are the final impressions. As in, the final scene of an opera. In Tosca, it's the Leap.
Recently, members of OPERA-L, an online opera fan club, erupted in a multifaceted, interactive discussion of Leaps they had either seen, read about or, in a few cases, been told firsthand by the artists themselves. I've organized this avalanche of praise and regret, nostalgia and invention, into three meticulously selected categories: Leapers, Non-Leapers and the inimitable Bouncing Tosca.
Of course it's impossible to gather all of the names of the passionate OPERA-Ler who gave their two guineas worth to this erudite discussion, so be advised that the use of quotes below is of a collective nature, referencing OPERA-Lers as a group.
Renato Scotto: "To the Castel's rim she ran, triumphantly and defiantly trumpeting 'O Scarpia, avanti a Dio,' and, as she took off for parts unknown, her skirt appeared to spout wings as it enveloped the space around her. The last thing the audience saw as she fell to her eternal reward was that enormous raft of material floating in mid air. It was awesome, it was magnificent, and it brought the sold out audience to its feet in frenzy. It was a moment of visual perfection, the likes of which I've rarely, if ever, seen."
a) "Her jump was literally a spread-eagle vault, and I swear she went horizontal for a few seconds!! We were stupefied."
b) "She took a giant leap upward, and then sort of twisted her body in midair, and then come plummeting down. A great effect!!"
Hildegarde Behrens: "Behrens jumped waaaaay upwards above the parapet and that twist of the body, giving the impression she was going to fly up to heaven for that meeting with God right then and there - then . . . WOOSH she was gone! ... very chilling."
Susan Foster: "Her Tosca in Washington, D.C. a decade ago was the most chilling exit I've seen in this opera. She stood at the top of the parapet and flung the final phrase out while facing the audience - then with arms outstretched in a cruciform, still facing us, blindly fell backwards to her death. I get chills just thinking about it."
Carol Vaness: "I was curious about just how high the ramparts of the Castel Sant' Angelo actually were when Carol Vaness took a flying leap at Covent Garden at Pavarotti's farewell several years ago. She disappeared, but her long scarf did not, the last two feet of it remaining resolutely in view. There it remained for about ten seconds, when it suddenly disappeared, presumably due to a tug by the prop man or the diva herself."
Eleanor Steber: “On the night she debuted as Tosca at the Met, Ms. Steber's Leap did result in an impact: she broke part of front middle tooth. Her rival, Zinka Milanov, offered, ‘See, Elinor, I told you this role was too heavy for you!’”
Martina Serafin: Very recently [12/2/15], Ms. Serafin, singing Tosca at the Vienna State Opera, suffered a broken leg when landing awkwardly onto the positioned mattress and had a plaster cast stabilize her limb.
Kiri Te Kanawa: "Close examination to the telecast of her performance from Lyon will reveal the fact that she walked out of stage only to be replaced by a life-size shadow on a screen that gets grayer and grayer until it disappears, giving the illusion of a slow-motion jump."
Gabriella Tucci: "Singing in Orlando, she had turned to run up the stairs to the parapet -- only to discover that the stage hands had forgotten the staircase! Unable to climb up, she had opted for one of those desperate, back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead gestures, and ran off stage."
Magda Oliverio: "She hurled out her last sung line and nipped behind the base of an archway. Immediately a stunt double, obviously younger and more athletic, in the same costume, ran out to the parapet and jumped. A clever way to save the valuable as well as fragile and elderly soprano. No one complained. A workable arrangement, I thought."
Montserrat Caballe: "At the Met opening night in the early 1980s, she didn't jump but simply walked calmly into the wings after singing 'O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!' She made no attempt at characterization whatever, ambling offstage as if she was looking for the ladies' room! The men chasing her had to break into virtual slow-motion in order not to catch her! New York Times reviewer said, 'She looked like Queen Victoria going out for an afternoon perambulation in the park."' From another OPERA-Ler: "In Vienna she walked behind a pillar. Trouble was, she stuck out on both sides of it."
Otto Schenk, revered German stage director, has been consistently conservative and traditional when producing operas from the standard repertoire but, when venturing into operatic humor, he has exhibited an exaggerated impish humor. As he puts it: “Ich habe den Humor immer sehr ernst genommen. [I’ve always taken humor very seriously].”
To wit: Here are sequential photo clips from Otto Schenk’s 1983 made-for-TV film Tosca auf dem Trampolin und andere Opernkatastrophen, with Slovakian mezzo Marjana Lipovšek, recreating the legendary mishap of a Tosca returning to view following her leap from a stage repreresentation of the top of the Castel Sant' Angelo.
True Tosca fans know of the story of the Tosca who, unmindful of the need to roll when hitting the awaiting trampoline, bounces back into full view of the audience. The nagging question remains: Who are these poor bouncers?
True to anything (or anyone) that bounces, it’s hard to pin down the sopranos who rocked instead of rolled. That doesn’t stop us from putting our ear to the gossip mill, however. Divas, am I right?
- An early suspect was Emma Eames.
- Another was Zinka Milanov.
- Always competition for Ms. Milanov, Eleanor Steber has been also nominated.
- Ms. Steber, however, cited Lily Djanel as a Bouncer.
- Dame Eva Turner insisted that it happened to her.
So as a twist to the old “saw” [Success has many Fathers]: We have here the case of a failure having many mothers.
Let's give the final word to the late Pulitzer Prize winner and LA Times writer Martin Bernheimer, who often received the suggestion that he ‘go take a flying leap:
"Like many of the 32nd-hand Merrill stories, this, alas, is apocryphal. The diva in any case was not Stella Roman (an old friend of mine). Please pass the grains of salt."